“Getting a vaccine shouldn’t be political, it’s just responsible and a way to protect yourself and others.”

— Brooke Franconeri, 12

       Since March 2020, Fairfax County Public Schools has been in an unending battle with the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic with regards to virtual learning and managing spikes in cases. With the return to school this past fall, things were beginning to look up until recent spikes due to Omnicron and Delta variants heightened concerns over spread of the virus and a possible return to virtual learning. 

          At the start of the holiday season in late November, new COVID cases were sitting at about 102,000 daily. This number constantly fluctuated in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with cases reaching about 260,000 cases on Christmas Day and a massive surge in cases just a  few days later, with cases reaching more than 525,000 on December 29.

          In response to the sudden surge, FCPS has quickly implemented new policies to help manage the spread and honor its commitment to keeping schools open. In an email that recently went out to the community, Dr.Scott Braband, FCPS Superintendent,  stated, Our number one priority is to provide continuous in-person learning.”

          Westfield High School has become a pilot program for COVID-19 testing with a testing site being set up in the school’s parking lot, available to drivers on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Though this seems like a strong move to combat the spread of the virus, some are criticizing the school system’s timing and what  they perceive as insufficient organization. 

          Deborah LeGros, science teacher, stated, “I was disappointed to learn that we were a pilot school for test-to-stay after we were already out on break, and facing this surge at the return.  To say that we were testing to stay, but not right away, sent a conflicting and disorganized message. It was poorly planned, and seemed (again) to be reactive rather than proactive.”

          Another policy that has come up in response to a rise in cases,  reminiscent of last year, is limiting attendance to school events such as sports. This policy adds to precautionary rules already in place, including those that require regular testing for unvaccinated athletes and PCR testing for vaccinated athletes. 

          In addition to renewed pandemic policies, Dr.Braband has released a detailed  plan for the coverage of classes in the event that subs are not available for teachers who are out sick in coming days. The number of teacher absences is projected  to be high given the long lines of staff at testing sites right after the new year. The longstanding shortage of substitutes will also exasperate the problem. Brabrand recently committed to an unprecedented plan for assigning staff from the county’s central office to individual schools once internal personnel resources, including cafeteria and custodial workers, have been depleted. 

          County protocol  for classroom coverage outline Plans A, B, and C. The plan in place will depend on the percentage of classes that do not have “dedicated coverage” due to teacher absenteeism. At the higher end of the absenteeism spectrum–that is, when 11-25% of classes lack coverage– classes may be combined under the supervision of one staff member, and students may be assigned asynchronous work. 

          If schools exhaust all of these options, the next step would most likely be to return to virtual learning for a short period of time until circumstances improve. FCPS has all of the necessary tools in case that option needs to be used with online learning platforms such as Zoom and Peardeck, and technology for every student, provided by the county.

          Some staff believe the virtual option should be implemented sooner rather than later in order to prevent not just the spread of Omicron, but unnecessary disruptions to learning. “We have the technology to be virtual for a couple of weeks, why not try it?  It could prevent so many cases, illnesses, absences, worries, etc.” asserted LeGros

          The county has released plans to ensure quality of education and instruction throughout this time and is continuing to actively look for ways to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus within schools.